PHILADELPHIA -- Say what you will about the state of Michael Vick's game so far this season. Call him turnover-prone, or injury-prone or forever prone to spark raging debates about his worthiness and suitability to be the starting quarterback in Philadelphia.
Just make sure Sunday night's game against the New York Giants is part of the story, and don't forget to mention that Vick has led the 3-1 Eagles to three fourth-quarter comebacks this season and into sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
If Philadelphia's gritty 19-17 conquest of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants was a referendum of sorts on Vick's status, as some made it out to be in the week leading up to the game, then No. 7 earned a sizable vote of confidence with the Eagles' win. Vick played his most efficient and smartest game of the year, and his first turnover-less performance of 2012 was the biggest reason Philadelphia will enter the season's second month sitting atop the division.
"I just felt in control out there from the beginning of the game,'' Vick told me afterwards, just outside the Eagles locker room. "I just didn't want to put this team in a bad position, and the thing is, I know how to play quarterback. I know how to play it and play it well. I just wanted to put our team into position where we could compete throughout the entire game, regardless of how tough it was going to be.''
Vick played the position superbly against New York, never more so than on the 12-play, 75-yard drive that set up Alex Henery's game-winning 26-yard field with 1:49 to play. That march erased the Giants only lead of the night and wound up providing the difference in a game that saw Vick deliver in the clutch, outdoing the celebrated fourth-quarter master himself, Eli Manning of the Giants -- he of the 22 fourth-quarter comebacks on his résumé.
Just as he did at Cleveland in Week 1 and again at home against Baltimore in Week 2, Vick led the Eagles back into the win column. True, Philadelphia's victories have come by a combined margin of four points, but the razor's edge approach has always been Vick's style, and the bottom line is the Eagles have survived three times in four tries. That makes Philadelphia the first team in NFL history to post three fourth-quarter comeback victories in their first four games of a season.
Manning? He's already failed twice at three potential fourth-quarter comebacks this season, and the Giants are 0-2 against division rivals because of it, losing to Dallas and Philadelphia. Fourth-quarter meltdowns were an Eagles' specialty last season, when they started 4-8 and blew an NFL-record five fourth-quarter leads en route to an 8-8 finish, but that curse has been reversed.
"It's just a growing sense of confidence in our team, because the guys have done a great job of just responding when we need to,'' said Vick, who was 3-of-3 for 34 yards passing on the game-winning drive, with a key 13-yard rush as well. "It's hard sometimes to march the length of the field, but we've been doing a great job of that since day one, and this year we've gained some experience with that.''
By no means did Vick have overly gaudy stats against the Giants. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown (19 yards to DeSean Jackson in the second quarter), but he threw no interceptions, had no fumbles, and took just two sacks, none in the first half. But he was consistently smart with the football all night, running only when he had to (a season-high 49 yards on six rushes), using the sideline as his best friend and safety device, and playing as disciplined and in control as Eagles fans have seen him in a long time.
This wasn't the same Vick who was responsible for nine of the Eagles' NFL-worst 12 turnovers in the season's first three weeks, it was much closer to the 2010 version of Vick, whose comeback took the league by storm and prompted Philadelphia to bench Kevin Kolb and keep him in the lineup. Vick entered play Sunday night with an ugly 66.3 passer rating, but did leaps and bounds better than that against the Giants, posting a coolly efficient and season-high 99.4 rating.
"I just felt like if we don't turn the ball over we give ourselves a chance to win this game,'' Vick said. "But if we turned the ball over, Eli's going to capitalize on everything we give him. I just tried to play smarter, and not force anything against that defense.''
Vick spread the ball around to eight receivers, helped Philly rack up 422 yards of offense, and after starting the game with four possessions that resulted in punts, the Eagles scored on their final five drives of the game (excluding the end of the first half and end of game possessions). But it was Vick's avoidance of turnovers that set his performance apart and drew raves from his teammates and coaches.
"That was awesome,'' said Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, who caught a team-high six passes for 99 yards, including the game's first touchdown. "Mike Vick did a great job of controlling the tempo and so did the running backs. Everyone did a great job of protecting the ball and that's something we worked on all week and practiced.''
The Eagles really had no choice but to improve on the turnover front, running back LeSean McCoy said. Philadelphia's coaching staff hammered away at the topic all week. "The coaches were harping on us and beating us up about it, because that's what's been haunting our season: turnovers, fumbles, interceptions, all that stuff,'' said McCoy, who ran just six times for 2 yards in the first half, but exploded for 121 yards on 17 carries in the second half.
After watching Vick and the Eagles largely self-destruct with those 12 turnovers in the season's first three games, the Giants admittedly were shocked to see Philadelphia play a mistake-free game in that department. They weren't expecting the discipline and the sense of control and composure Vick exhibited, and it cost New York a chance to exit Week 4 with the division lead.
"They ran the ball well, and they did a good job of keeping the quarterback out of those real difficult situations,'' Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "And when he was in those situations he ran the ball instead of throwing it. Here's a team that had 12 turnovers and we didn't get one, and quite frankly we were counting on [getting some]. We were counting on some field position by virtue of turnovers.''
If this is the Vick the Eagles can count on seeing for the rest of the season, Philadelphia is going to be the odds-on favorite in the NFC East. Eagles head coach Andy Reid believes the lack of preseason playing time due to injuries affected Vick's early regular-season performance more than anyone anticipated, but the worst of those struggles are over.
"He had the interceptions in the beginning [of the season], and he had the fumbles, so now he had no turnovers [tonight],'' Reid said. "That's a good thing, and we're making progress in the right direction. He's been knocking the rust off from not playing. This game is so stinking fast that if you have no snaps in the preseason and you're asked to come out and play at a high level against the football teams we're playing against, it's tough. It's tough for anybody. As great a player as he is, it's tough. He found himself tonight, and he did a nice job with it.''
Vick's showing against the Giants should buy him a little slack, not to mention some reduced chatter and noise when it comes to his grip on the Eagles starting job. "Just a week, you say?'' Vick joked in the postgame, when I asked if he had quieted his critics for now? "That's all? But I know what you mean. I know.''
For now, that's enough. The Eagles have had an interesting first month to their 2012 season, but they're 3-1, in first place, and on Sunday night they finally started to resemble the team they want to be, beating the rival Giants for an eighth time in nine tries, dating to December 2008. And the always-topical Vick was in the middle of it all.
"You can't listen to what everybody says and what is being said about you,'' Vick said, without meaning to imply he always succeeds at taking his own advice. "Everybody doesn't agree with how you play or how you win. If I listen to all you guys [ in the media], then I'll be a wreck. I just had to stay positive. You know I've been through a lot, and it's kind of easy to persevere in the game that you love.''
Especially when it all works out in the end, like Sunday night's satisfying showdown victory over the Giants. For at least another week, Vick has earned the benefit of the doubt in Philadelphia. The referendum has passed.